One of new BYU tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride’s tasks during spring football practices this month has been to turn former receiver Keanu Hill into a tight end.

It is a transition that is more difficult to pull off than many fans might think, Gilbride said last week after the Cougars concluded their third full week of spring camp.

I am also challenging our guys to develop themselves in areas that they might have been previously deficient in. So they are trying to grow in those areas. Because the more versatile they can be, the more challenging it is for the defense to recognize what we are doing.”

—  BYU tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride

The good news for Hill and the Cougars is that Gilbride has done it before. When he was the Chicago Bears’ tight ends coach, Gilbride converted Jesper Horsted, a receiver out of Princeton, into a tight end prior to the 2019 season.

“The first time he had ever gotten into a three-point stance was rookie mini-camp. We had our meetings, we had our walkthrough, and they were putting on their pads for practice, and I pulled him aside and said, ‘Hey, have you ever been in a three-point stance?’” Gilbride said. “So I taught him how to get in a three-point stance about 20 minutes before his first NFL practice. So yes, I have some experience with that.”

BYU’s Hill, who has 73 career receptions for 1,212 yards and 11 touchdowns, was ready for the change when spring practices began on Feb. 29, having been told by offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick that the position switch was happening a few months prior to that. But the redshirt senior still needed a couple pointers on alignment in his new spot(s) on the field.

“If you have never done it before, you have got to be taught,” Gilbride said. “It is just like anything else. He picked up on it very quickly, though.”

An outstanding blocker for a receiver, Hill’s biggest adjustment will be learning how to block bigger, stronger players as a tight end. Gilbride said the group he oversees — fullback-types such as Mason Fakahua, Ray Paulo and Mata’ava Ta’ase are also in his room — is diverse enough that Hill might not line up inside as much as some of the others.

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“They are a talented group, and they are also driven. But there are a lot of things that we need to improve on,” Gilbride said of the 11 or so players categorized as tight ends on BYU’s spring roster. “One of the big things that I have challenged them about is being willing to put their bodies into challenging situations and potentially where they are going to fail so we can coach them and get them better moving forward. And they have accepted that well.”

Last year, BYU primarily relied on just one tight end — veteran Isaac Rex, who is in Frisco, Texas, this week at the Big 12 pro days — and wasn’t able to develop any others. Rex caught 34 passes for 422 yards and three TDs. Fakahua, more of an H-back, or fullback, caught six passes, while Ethan Erickson, Ta’ase and Paulo combined for just four catches.

Erickson is recovering from a lower leg injury and is not participating in spring camp, which has given Hill and others more reps.

“Different guys have different skillsets. We will try to put them in positions where they are successful, the best positions possible where they can contribute,” said Gilbride, hired on Jan. 12 to replace Steve Clark, who is now on the staff at Utah Tech.

“But that being said, I am also challenging our guys to develop themselves in areas that they might have been previously deficient in,” Gilbride continued. “So they are trying to grow in those areas. Because the more versatile they can be, the more challenging it is for the defense to recognize what we are doing.”

Coach Kalani Sitake said the Cougars were probably too predictable last year at the tight end position, with opponents knowing the differences between the primary pass-catchers, such as Rex, and the primary blockers, such as Ta’ase and Paulo.

“Kevin and (Aaron Roderick) have been working hard in making them more well-rounded,” Sitake said. “The guys that can block, we try to make sure that they can also run routes and catch the ball. … I like the improvement that they have made.”

Much has already been written and said about freshman Ryner Swanson, the four-star prospect from Laguna Beach, California, who graduated high school early, enrolled at BYU in January, and was making spectacular catch-and-runs from the first practice of spring camp until now. Gilbride said the 6-foot-4, 245-pound phenom has a chance to be an immediate contributor if he continues to develop.

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“We are definitely trying to develop everyone and get them all ready to play in the fall,” Gilbride said. “So he would certainly have a shot. He falls into that category, certainly.”

Asked last Friday which freshmen have made the biggest impacts in camp so far, Sitake mentioned Swanson, safety Tommy Prassas, defensive end Ephraim Asiata and running backs Pokaiaua Haunga and Jovesa Damuni, a returned missionary.

“The tight ends group is loaded,” Sitake said. “… Ryner has been the guy that everybody has talked about so far. He’s done a great job.”

Sitake said that last year’s big tight end recruit, Jackson Bowers, has “made huge strides in terms of being a lot more confident and comfortable in the offense” in spring camp as well.

Gilbride said Bowers, 6-5, 245, is one of those tight ends working hard to become a more well-rounded player.

“He is one of those guys that I mentioned that is very willing to challenge himself and put himself in challenging situations in order to develop,” Gilbride said. “He understands that it is not about what is happening right now. It is about what is going to happen when he stacks (good) days. He is doing a good job with that.”

As for the aforementioned Hill, Gilbride said he’s coming along nicely, and already has the physical attributes needed to be a quality tight end.

“They are all working towards becoming great players, and that’s all you can ask of them right now,” Gilbride said.

Other tight ends on the roster include scholarship player Bentley Redden, freshman Nason Coleman, redshirt sophomore Anthony Olsen and freshman Will Zundel, a walk-on from American Fork High.

Redden is a 6-5, 215-pound redshirt freshman from San Clemente, California, who was said to be an outstanding scout team player last year.

BYU photo